Paris colors — one photographer’s multi-hued take on the city
Nichole Robertson roams the French capital capturing its browns, yellows, blues and more, for a blog and book
By Rebecca L. Weber, for CNN 4 March, 2014
When Nichole Robertson relocated to Paris from New York more than four years ago, she roamed the city.
She soon hit upon a distinctive way of documenting her wanderings.
She took photos of particular colors she found popping out against that characteristic Paris gray, then went on a scavenger hunt to find where in the city those colors — a certain rust red, say, or eggshell blue — recurred.
She posted the resulting photographic series on a blog (now archived at Obvioustate.com).
And then the part that doesn’t usually happen: the blog went viral and led to a bestselling book, “Paris in Color.”
The images are clearly Parisian, but organized in a novel and engaging fashion.
Like so many new arrivals in Paris, Robertson at first traipsed around the city’s most popular sights, such as Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe.
She noticed visitors dutifully pulling back to snap pictures of their travel companions in front of these classic attractions and then dutifully putting their cameras away.
Robertson decided to go for an opposite approach: focusing in on detail and color.
She took shots that highlighted the varying shades of brown in a row of baguettes, a bicycle saddle bag and an aged stone building façade, for example.
She focused on yellow as it cropped up in a café façade, a tart in a patisserie or flowers in a window basket.
Capture the details
“The details are the things that you will actually remember — capture those,” Robertsonadvises photographers.
She seeks out culture, bits of nature thriving in the city and moments of human interaction.
Neutral grays and browns are featured prominently in her work; bouncing against each other, they feel lively.
Robertson’s color-seeking approach is surprising, given the uniformly neutral shade that prevails in so much of Paris.
Buildings are typically off-white or gray — an ideal canvas for shocks of color, as well as the more subtle shades, she sought out.
Robertson prefers a dull, overcast sky.
When the sun is shining and the sky is blue, she puts down her camera and heads to a café.
Robertson’s project is, in a sense, all about surface — surface color — but she also feels it gives her a sense of the city’s underlying rhythms and quirks.
Shapes or theme
You needn’t just focus on a color, Robertson suggests.
Any repeating shape or theme will do.
Parisian typography, pastries or transportation methods are all good starting points for re-focusing the way you see things.
“It might seem absurd just to wander around Paris,” Robertson says, especially if you have limited time there.
But to really get to know the city she recommends choosing a particular area and doing just that, even for one day, noticing the quirks and repeating themes — and photographing them.
The same approach works equally well in many other old European cities, such as Rome.
As for Robertson, she returns again and again to Montmartre, the Left Bank, and the banks of the Seine, all of which she also documents in an iPhone app, The Paris Journals.
“Paris gets distilled down to one or two icons that don’t capture all the other equally good stuff you see,” she says.
“Color is an essential part of how we experience the world, both biologically and culturally. One of the earliest formal explorations of color theory came from an unlikely source — the German poet, artist, and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who in 1810 published Theory of Colours (public library;public domain), his treatise on the nature, function, and psychology of colors. Though the work was dismissed by a large portion of the scientific community, it remained of intense interest to a cohort of prominent philosophers and physicists, including Arthur Schopenhauer, Kurt Gödel, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
One of Goethe’s most radical points was a refutation of Newton’s ideas about the color spectrum, suggesting instead that darkness is an active ingredient rather than the mere passive absence of light.
…light and darkness, brightness and obscurity, or if a more general expression is preferred, light and its absence, are necessary to the production of colour… Colour itself is a degree of darkness.
But perhaps his most fascinating theories explore the psychological impact of different colors on mood and emotion — ideas derived by the poet’s intuition, which are part entertaining accounts bordering on superstition, part prescient insights corroborated by hard science some two centuries later, and part purely delightful manifestations of the beauty of language.”……
THIS SEEMINGLY SIMPLE AREA OF STUDY OFFERS INSIGHTS INTO ALL SORTS OF BEHAVIOR–FROM ATTENTION TO DECISION-MAKING.
“Neuroscientist Bevil Conway thinks about color for a living. An artist since youth, Conway now spends much of his time studying vision and perception at Wellesley College and Harvard Medical School. His science remains strongly linked to art–in 2004 he and Margaret Livingstonefamously reported that Rembrandt may have suffered from flawed vision–and in recent years Conway has focused his research almost entirely on the neural machinery behind color.
“I think it’s a very powerful system,” he tells Co.Design, “and it’s completely underexploited.”
Conway’s research into the brain’s color systems has clear value for designers and artists like himself. It stands to reason, after all, that someone who understands how the brain processes color will be able to present it to others in a more effective way. But the neuroscience of color carries larger implications for the rest of us. In fact, Conway thinks his insights into color processing may ultimately shed light on some fundamental questions about human cognition…….
Conway believes scientists can learn a lot from examining the strategies artists use to clarify color. “The best access we have of what color is and what it does to us is by studying the work of people who have studied it obsessively. Matisse is one of those people,” he says. “I think it’s extremely valuable, and there’s been very limited work treating that corpus as the sort of scientific evidence that it will turn out to be.”